What’s at the Heart of ‘Zoom Fatigue’

Smile for the camera? Requiring employee cameras to be turned on for video calls isn’t a great idea for everyone, recent research shows.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

woman rubs eyes during video call

New research shows that the number of hours spent in virtual meetings isn’t the main cause of “Zoom fatigue.”

You might have been in an online meeting recently — or led one yourself — where everyone was encouraged to turn their web cameras on in order to create a sense of community. But for some participants, being on camera may have the opposite effect, according to results of a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The research was conducted by Allison Gabriel, professor of management and organization at the University of Arizona, and Kristen Shockley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, working with BroadPath, a business services company that has offered remote work to employees for more than a decade.

Before the pandemic, BroadPath had been experimenting with always-on video for remote employees as way to build community. But in the massive shift to virtual platforms in 2020, and as “Zoom fatigue” made headlines, they began to wonder if being on camera was detracting from — rather than adding to — employees’ experience. Working with Gabriel and Shockley, BroadPath designed an experiment to measure and compare how employees felt after participating in meetings with their cameras off and with their cameras on.

The results were “quite clear,” the researchers wrote in a story published in Harvard Business Review — the number of hours that employees spent on camera was what was associated with fatigue, not the number of hours spent in virtual meetings. It was notable, the researchers wrote, because it runs counter to many managers’ beliefs that being on-camera is crucial for creating engagement among employees.

The fatigue associated with being on camera affected all groups, resulting in people feeling less comfortable and cognitively engaged, the researchers wrote, but it was particularly true for women and employees who were newer to the organization. That’s likely because of the social pressures that women and newer employees face, they added. Women are judged more harshly in general, making being on camera more stressful, and that’s particularly true when they are at home, where family- or child-related interruptions might occur. And for new employees trying to establish themselves in a new workplace and figure out the social cues, being on camera all the time adds stress.

The obvious fix is for participants to turn off their cameras on their video calls, especially if they start feeling fatigued, the researchers wrote. Turning off the self-view on platforms is another option. Managers can help here, by establishing norms around using cameras that take fatigue into account and asking workers for their feedback on how often they would like to appear on camera.

Barbara Palmer is senior editor at Convene.

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